Right now, games are everywhere. In the corporate and government sectors, we’ve seen a rapid increase in gamification and gamified learning, particularly in training and customer outreach.

According to Digital Australia, the average Australian gamer is 34 years old, plays for over an hour a day, can’t be defined by gender, and is likely to be fighting his or her grandparents for a turn on the Nintendo.

Despite this surge in popularity, games still carry the stigma of being something that happens outside of work. They’re seen as a trivial way to switch off the brain and relax, which can make it tricky to communicate their usefulness as a learning technology.

As a learning designer for Savv-e, I see this most strongly in the briefs I get from certain clients. These clients know that games are exciting and fashionable, they want to harness the interactive elements of games, but are concerned that turning the project into an actual game would trivialise it.

In this post, I'm going to look at current theoretical approaches to game design and how the act of play itself is a form of learning, as well as a positive and important tool for mental health and well-being.

Far from a trivial alternative to work and learning, games are a deeply engaging form of learning / work, and their (educational) rewards are intrinsic, long-lasting and profound.


1. Games build resilience and commitment

When you introduce someone to a game, their first question is probably going to be about the goal or win conditions. But what really makes a game engaging are the hurdles you have to jump in order to get to that goal. And this is also where the learning happens.

Imagine a game of mini golf where every hole is just a hole, and the players take turns picking up the ball and placing it inside, without having to worry about a putter. Without challenges and the rules to enforce them, the game is broken and no fun at all.

(Bernard Suits makes a similar comparison with golf in his seminal work on games, The Grasshopper.)

Now imagine that same game as we usually see it, with the player trying to put a small ball in a small hole from far away, through a number of absurd tunnels and blocks, using only a stick. The restrictions are ridiculous, but they’re also where the fun lies.

Knowing how to win might motivate you to play a game, but it’s the difficulty of the game (and the draw of eventually overcoming that difficulty) that ultimately engages the player. It’s no coincidence that in game design, this is described as the learning curve.

This is also why cheating spoils a game (unless not getting caught is one of the challenges).

Of course, if a game is too difficult, it’s not much fun either, and losing consistently can demotivate you to improve. So the perfect level of difficulty is one that seems just out of reach, inviting you to practise and make incremental progress until you finally master the goal.

In other words, games are anything but trivial. They’re hard work, and the act of playing teaches the player how to overcome obstacles and to not give up along the way.


2. Games teach us to be better at what we do

When applying this logic to a client brief, I’ll always ask myself what the client wants the learner to be better at, and what the obstacles are to performing that task effectively. To be an effective learning game, the skills the player must use to overcome those obstacles will be the ones we want them to improve. And they have to be given the opportunity to improve their score along the way.

For example, we are currently developing a game for a client who wants to improve their employees’ ability in dealing with aggressive customers. They’ll need to learn a litany of skills, including listening empathetically to a customer, reading non-verbal cues and knowing at what point to call security.

In this situation, many clients might prefer to apply a simple quiz to the learning. But while quiz-based testing is an important and valuable strategy, it only really tests your ability to recall and apply information that you’ve already learned. The obstacles in that situation become ‘forgetting the information’ or ‘misapplying the information’, and not 'dealing with an aggressive customer'.

This particular client is keen to experiment with an AR simulation, which gives us license to tie the gameplay directly to the learning outcomes. Rather than getting a result that reflects how many questions they answered correctly, they’ll get a result that measures how well they were able to de-escalate a conflict given the obstacles they encountered.

Not only does this make the learning more enjoyable, but it also corresponds with the idea of reflective practice as an important strategy of learning - that we learn most effectively when we look back on our work to analyse what we might have done differently to get a better outcome (or score).

This is also why, when the strategies you use to overcome those hurdles aren’t closely linked to the skills you are required to learn, that interactivity can be meaningless and repetitive. This has been referred to as zombification, and something we’ll look at in a future post.


3. Games make us happy

It might seem obvious, but we enjoy playing games. We often do this to relax, even though (as we’ve established above) games can be incredibly hard work.

What’s less obvious is why we get such a buzz from a good game. And the simple answer is hard work (and more importantly, the evidence we can see of our accomplishments as a result of that hard work) is incredibly rewarding.

This kind of happiness is intrinsic, because it comes from within. It’s more sustainable and long-lasting that extrinsic rewards because it feeds our very human need for self-determination.

According to Self Determination Theory (SDT), those needs include the need to feel competent, the need to make meaningful choices, and the need to feel socially relevant and connected.

SDT is a theory of human motivation. And while many of the basic components of games — points, achievements, completion screens, the ability to personalise your avatar — seem to be coming from outside the player, they’re really ways of making the reward felt from personal improvement more tangible, motivating the player by speaking to those needs.

By gamifying a learning experience, we give the learner a way to measure their own progress and development, and enjoy the accomplishment that comes with it.

When you put these three aspects of gaming together, you get a learning system that motivates the learner to build skills for intrinsic reward, and to not give up along the way.

All it takes is a digital learning designer to point them in the right direction.